Proposed changes under the National Legal Profession Reform draft Billwhich would provide free or low cost practising certificates for lawyers volunteering at community legal centres has drawn both praise and criticism from the National Pro Bono Resource Centre (NPBRC).
NPBRC director John Corker told Lawyers Weekly that while the new regulations would be likely to facilitate and encourage lawyers to volunteer in community legal centres, it would also prevent in-house lawyers from conducting pro bono work within privately arranged schemes.
"It is a really positive step forward in terms of facilitating pro bono [because] it makes [the volunteer's position] a lot clearer, and the low cost certificate is likely to make it easier for lawyers to volunteer at community legal services, so that has got to be a good thing," he said.
"The problem is with in-house corporate lawyers who essentially want to create their own pro bono program and want to do pro bono work ... outside the realms of a community legal service."
Under the proposed national regulations, all in-house and government lawyers will be required to hold a practising certificate.
Therefore, if they hold the class of certificate which allows them to do pro bono work at community legal centres, this would facilitate their participation - something which was previously impossible in states such as Victoria, and extremely difficult in states such as News South Wales and Queensland.
The NPBRC had, however, taken steps to address the inability of in-house lawyers to work for community legal centres by providing them with professional indemnity insurance through Law Cover.
"We did that in conjunction with the New South Wales Law Society, which amended its regulations to allow in-house lawyers to have a practising certificate authorising them to do that type of work, and in April this year Queensland also changed their regulations to facilitate that," said Corker.
Corker is now concerned that under the new regulations, in-house lawyers who have established pro bono relationships with, for example, independent charitable organizations, would be unable to continue to provide legal services as they are not classed as community legal centres.
"There is significant interest amongst corporate legal teams at the moment in developing pro bono programs. We are starting to see that in New South Wales ... and the national law should facilitate that," he said.
"I am hoping that this is an oversight which will be rectified with the final law. This would be a backward step, particularly in relation to what is already occurring."